Once upon a time, there were good journalists and bad journalists. The good journalists worked at places like The Washington Post, The New York Times and most other newspapers, while the bad journalists worked at weird magazines that published the names of American spies. Everyone agreed that something had to be done about the bad journalists.

The government detested the bad journalists. They were a pain in the neck. They hid behind the First Amendment and made life miserable for the Central Intelligence Agency. Twice, in fact, they published the names of spies and the spies were later shot at. One of them was killed, but it was never clear that the publication of the name had anything to do with his murder. Still, it was suspicious.

The good journalists also hated the bad journalists. The good journalists generally agreed with the government. The two often quarrelled, had what they both liked to call "an adversary relationship," but on most matters they were in agreement. The good journalists agreed with the government, for instance, that spies were necessary and that blowing their cover was a bad thing to do.

So the government set to work to make the naming of spies illegal. This was not such an easy thing to do because of the First Amendment. It guarantees freedom of the press, and it seemed that it guaranteed it to the bad as well as the good journalists. But the government persisted. It made it a crime for government employes to divulge the identities of spies and then also made it a crime for the bad journalists to do the same thing.

This got the good journalists upset. In op-ed columns and editorials and in testimony before Congress, the good journalists pointed out that this could hinder legitimate reporting. The good journalists did not have any trouble with hindering the work of the bad journalists. It was their own work they were worried about.

What if a spy committed a crime? they asked. They brought up Watergate and pointed out that the CIA had been used by the Nixon administration in the cover-up. The proposed law could stop the press from writing about this. There was great seriousness about this issue and much debate. A lawyer for The New York Times, Floyd Abrams, pointed out that during the Kennedy administration members of the Mafia were recruited by the CIA to either kill Fidel Castro or humiliate him to death by making his beard fall out. Would these Mafiosos be protected by the law?

The good journalists lobbied Congress, and pretty soon they got their way. The law that was sent to the president said there had to be "a pattern of activity to identify and expose" government agents. No one knew exactly what this meant or how the courts would interpret it, but the general idea was to make sure the law only applied to the bad journalists. Almost everyone was happy.

Some people had qualms. They pointed out that the bad journalists were not stealing the information and giving it to the Ruskies, which would be treason, but getting it from public documents and publishing it instead. Others said that the bad journalists weren't telling the Russians anything they did not already know.

But Congress was irate and the good journalists were embarrassed. Along with the government, they, too, thought they knew what was good for America. The good journalists never considered that this was a political position and that the bad journalists, who had a different view of America, also had a political position -- just a different one. These bad journalists, in fact, pointed out some of the bad things the CIA had done and said, in effect, that they were politically opposed to it. That's why they wanted to make life hard for the CIA.

But the good journalists did not care. They took care of their own interests and did not bother defending the interests of the bad journalists. They did not consider that the First Amendment does not distinguish between intent that is popular and intent that is not. All they cared about was themselves.

And so last week the bill was sent to the president for his signature. The good journalists gave away a little piece of the First Amendment they thought only bad journalists would ever need. This made them happy. It also made them the worst journalists of all.